Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Dixie Diaries: Day 5

April 20, 2012:  Morning at Goulding's, Monument Valley, Delicate Arch

At Goulding’s it is easy to forget about everything but the here and now.  

We watch the sun rise, not over a canyon this time, but over a desert, a flat piece of red earth sprinkled with massive protruding rock structures.  It is perfect:  the warmth on my skin, the birds chirping the brand new day into being.  I close my eyes and meditate.  It does not take me long to reach that place of tranquility, where the inner workings of my own mind are gently held up to the light.

We linger at our cabin for as long as we can, checking out at 11am, and after exploring the Goulding’s Museum (Goulding’s has a rich and fascinating history) we set out for our driving tour of Monument Valley, a tour that thrusts us into desert heat and rock-formed monstrosities that reach for the sky with primordial fingers.

Dixie proves to be tougher than she looks, navigating the rough terrain, creating micro dust storms on the trail.  Immersed in this place unlike any other place we have ever seen, we gawk at the monuments and their distorted shapes as we breathe in particles of dust and feel our skin thicken under a layer of sweat and sand.

Tangle-haired and rosy-cheeked, we then make our way North, headed towards the Arches National Park in Utah, a last-minute addition to our trip itinerary.  The drive to the Arches is incredible, leading us along a road called the Scenic Byway because of the varied scenes of astonishing beauty that greet us at every twist and turn. 

We stop for lunch in the small town of Monticello and meet Sierra, a young waitress and single mother who is eager to please and to share advice about the best places to see in Utah (the state she has lived in all of her life, never leaving except for a few trips to Dallas to visit her father.)  We are reminded of how lucky we are to be free enough and young enough and healthy enough to be road tripping like this.  Not everyone has the opportunity, or will ever have the opportunity, to do as we are doing now.

After driving for a total of about three hours, we arrive at the Arches just as the sun has begun its western descent.  In an attempt to get a glimpse of the sun setting over Delicate Arch – a sight strongly recommended by our Guidebook and various other sources – we park the car in the lot closest to the Arch and make a mad dash for it.  We run uphill, blind to the scenery around us, following the signs to Delicate Arch, stopping for nothing or no one, short on breath but big on resolve.

With sweat dripping down our bodies and thigh muscles throbbing in pain, we make it to the Delicate Arch viewing site, but the sun has already slipped too far down and its rays are illuminating not the Arch itself, but the other structures beside it.  I make my way down some rocky terrain, find a nice place to sit, and as the declining light drapes the place in soft shadows, I know that there is a lesson in this:  Open your eyes Vicki.  See what is right in front of you. 

What is right in front of me is the world of Edward Abbey, author of my beloved Desert Solitaire.  He lived in this park for years, working as a Park Ranger and writing passionately about the desert, the arches, the life and lack of life in these arid parts.  I feel his spirit and hear his words.  They are sacred echoes, softly reverberating between sand and sky, enfolding this very moment in mystery and wonder.

"A weird, lovely, fantastic object out of nature like Delicate Arch has the curious ability to remind us - like rock and sunlight and wind and wilderness - that out there is a different world, older and greater and deeper by far than ours, a world which surrounds and sustains the little world of men as sea and sky surround and sustain a ship.  The shock of the real.  For a little while we are again able to see, as the chid sees, a world of marvels. For a few moments we discover that nothing can be taken for granted, for if this ring of stone is marvelous then all which shaped it is marvelous, and our journey here on earth, able to see and touch and hear in the midst of tangible and mysterious things-in-themselves, is the most strange and daring of all adventures." (Edward Abbey)

When the light is almost completely gone, we make our way back towards Dixie, walking slowly this time, taking in our surroundings.  The desert changes, yet again, into a scene of muted pinks, purples, and greens and I am reminded of the film What Dreams May Come, in which the protagonist (Robin Williams) dies and finds himself in a heaven that is the manifestation of his favourite painting.

It feels like time is on pause,” says L, in that quiet way of hers that pins you to the moment, makes you be fully there, fully aware.

(Will the beauty never end?  How much beauty can two people take on a 10-day road trip?)

In the charming town of Moab, we check into the Lazy Lizard Hostel ($11 per night per person) and, after chatting with Charles and Nico, two French boys on an adventure of their own, we go to bed, lulled to sleep by pastel desert landscapes lingering in our minds like impressions pressed into skin.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

The Dixie Diaries: Day 4

April 19, 2012:  Grand Canyon Sunrise, Monument Valley Sunset

Up at 3am, on the road by 3:30, eyes burning in the dark night, straining to see the deer feeding on both sides of the road.  L drives Dixie and I keep watch, muttering and pointing, every few minutes, “Deer over here.  Deer over here.  Deer over here.”   It is a stressful ride and, by the time we reach the Canyon’s south rim, even tree stumps, clusters of rocks, and tuffets of grass have morphed into deer shapes.

A faint yellow tint has just begun to peak out over the horizon when we join the other few undaunted souls at Yavapai Point.

Here we are, strangers and friends, huddled together on the edge of a precipice in the gray interval that separates night and day, shivering under our layers of clothing, braving the cold and the wind, for a chance to see the sun ascend over the jagged ridges of the Canyon on which we now stand.  We have dragged ourselves out of comfy beds and assembled in a place as inhospitable as it is grand and this experience makes of us instant companions on a shared quest for light.

We have come here to greet the sun, yes, but I feel we have also come here to greet ourselves – to remind ourselves of the golden glow that shines within our own hearts and to acknowledge the miraculous that permeates our very existence in this world.  It is important to remember that the sun – this same sun – has risen every day of our lives and will continue to rise long after we are gone.  Though the Canyon provides a striking setting for this remarkable light show, the show itself is always remarkable, whether observed by human eyes or not, whether taking place over a Canyon in Arizona, a wheat field in Saskatchewan, or any bustling city.  Every morning, a miracle takes place.

We turn our sleep-creased faces upwards and watch as the faint yellow hue gradually transforms into darker yellow and, then, into a bright, blinding orange light that explodes from behind the big, billowy cloud resting in the eastern sky, pouring forth in brilliant beams, making the reds, purples, blues, and greens of the rock face shimmer to life.

We are struck, once again, by the sheer magnitude of this place.  We walk along the ridge, warming up a little, snapping pictures that fail miserably to capture the dawn’s ethereal glow.

After some time, we return to the car, drive to a semi-deserted parking lot, turn on the heat, strip off a few layers, and sleep.

We wake more than an hour later, slightly rested and better ready to tackle the day.  After more panoramas, a film about the history of the Canyon, and the difficult task of saying “goodbye,” we get back into Dixie and hit the open road, heading East, towards Monument Valley.

We drag out our Canyon farewell by stopping at various lookout points along the road and basking in the splendour of it all.  We travel down a highway that allows us to observe the deep, ragged gorges in the valleys adorning the road and, again, we stop to take it all in.  We find ourselves at an outdoor market and buy jewelry from a pleasant Navajo woman who neither pesters nor pressures us, but smiles kindly, a knowing twinkle in her eyes.

L drives and, when I feel somewhat certain that the best scenery has passed, I close my eyes and rest for a bit.  When I open them, I can tell that we are nearing Monument Valley for there are red, oddly shaped pillars protruding from the ground, transforming the landscape once again.

We pull into the driveway of Goulding’s Lodge, a lodge that seems to originate from the rock itself, and then proceed to our private cabin a few meters away, perfectly nestled amidst enormous boulders and sand the colour of cinnamon. It is the most stunning campground I have ever seen and it pulsates with the rhythm of the American Southwest.

At the sun begins its evening ritual, L puts on her beloved cowboy boots, which have been patiently waiting for this dusty moment for a long, long time.  We spend the evening sitting at the picnic table on our small front porch, sharing a tetra pak of Malbec and munching on crackers, carrots, hummus, and hard-boiled eggs. It is a light dinner, but we are not very hungry.  In fact, we have not been very hungry for the past three days, in spite of all our hiking and sweating.  I wonder about this and L says, “It’s because we are so full already” and I do believe she is right.  

Here, nourishment comes in the form of sunrises and sunsets, holes in the Earth that are miles deep and wide, open roads that lead us where we need to go, blackbirds gliding in the bluest sky, crimson sand embedding itself under our fingernails. 

Here, we survive mostly on water and wonderment. 

Friday, May 4, 2012

The Dixie Diaries: Day 3

April 18, 2012:  Grand Canyon

We wake from restful sleep and, after a quick hostel breakfast of instant oatmeal and orange, we are on the road again, bound for the Grand Canyon.  After driving for just over an hour and a half, we follow the signs to a large parking lot on the Canyon’s south rim, park Dixie for the day, and step into the cool morning breeze - a breeze we don’t mind as it makes the heat of the day more bearable.

It takes us awhile to orient ourselves and, though we know we are only steps away from the Canyon (the maps tell us so), we are, as of yet, untouched by its grandiosity and mostly concerned with eating enough food and transporting enough water on our hike down the South Kaibab Trail. 

We shuttle to a cafeteria, eat some greasy pizza (me) and some veggie chili (L) and fill our bottles with fresh spring water.  Then, before hitting the trail, we decide to take a peak at the Canyon itself.  It is better, we feel, to see the Canyon from above, to get a glimpse of the “big picture” before descending into its gaps and crevices and experiencing it from within.

We make our way to Mather Point, just a few steps away from the Visitor Center, anticipating something great (surely, the Grand Canyon is great) but unsure of what, exactly, awaits us.

One step, two steps, three steps, four…and then we are there, standing on one of the many edges of the Grand Canyon, looking out into a vast sea of peaks and valleys, limitless slopes and infinite gullies – a wilderness of rocks, chiseled and shaped over millions of years into the astonishing scene before us.

There are no words big enough to describe this, no way to properly verbalize the internal pirouettes taking place inside both of us.  “Oh my God” is repeated again and again as we scan the vista before us, feeling a hint of vertigo and lightheadedness. “It doesn’t even look real,” says L, in an enchanted voice reminiscent of childhood.

She is right.  It doesn’t look real.  It looks like a sweeping painting – a man-made fabrication, aimed at deceiving those souls foolish enough to think it true.  And it is impossible, we realize, to see the "big picture."  The Canyon can only be looked at in sections for it is too huge for human eyes (and, possibly, human hearts) to take in all at once.    We stand in awe, mouths gaping open, and snap pictures of each other, trying hard to smile through our feelings of disbelief and utter wonder.

After a time (hours?) of admiring the view (it is so much more than “a view”), we shake ourselves free of the Canyon’s mesmerizing pull and hop on the shuttle to the South Kaibab Trailhead.  Although some people choose to experience the Canyon from the many lookout points scattered for miles along various roads, we are determined to leave Dixie behind and to explore it on foot, to feel what it feels like to be inside of it, cradled in the belly of this colossal thing, place, being.

We hike.  From the South Kaibab Trailhead to Cedar Ridge – a hike of moderate difficulty, lasting between 3 to 5 hours (we do it in 4).  The hike thrusts us into a world of staggering beauty and, as the light starts to change in early-afternoon, the crests and ridges and colours become more distinct and real, less illusory, and all-the-more (if you can believe it) breathtaking.  We take off layers, put on hats, and trek along the unobstructed switchback.  The trail is not crowded, but we do cross paths with other hikers who smile a knowing smile, one that seems to say, “Just look at where we are right now.  Just look at where we are.”  And look we do, stopping every few minutes to breathe in the stunning landscape of which we are now a part.

At Cedar Ridge, we find a spot in which to sit, reflect, write, and have a little snack.  We do not talk much; this is not a place for talking.  It is a place for listening to the circling windsong and to the deepest silence I have ever known.

Blackbirds (ravens?) sweep and soar above and below us, their bodies gliding on the nothingness that is everything that separates the Canyon crags.  I am enthralled by these birds – by the effortless way they fall and rise again, carried on the wind, barely moving their wings.

Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these broken wings and learn to fly
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to arise

Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these sunken eyes and learn to see
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to be free

Free is how I feel at this particular moment.  Free and young and in love and in awe, as well as very small (in size) and very big (in power), amidst the mighty rocks. 

After some time of quiet contemplation, the energy shifts and L and I both feel it is time to stand up again and make our way out of the Canyon.  Canyons, unlike mountains, require you to first hike down and then up and out, reversing the usual order of things.  Up and out we go, legs and lungs burning, propelled by the sun, the wind, the very spirit of the place.

At the top, we hug and the blackbirds swoop and swirl above us, as though they, too, are rejoicing in our hike.

The rest of the day consists of more mind-numbing vistas, of shared bewilderment, and of sunset viewing, through a cloudy sky, from Yavapai Point.

We drive back to our hostel, encounter some deer (elk?) along the road, and vow to get up in the middle of the night (in a few hours, actually) and make our way back to the Canyon for sunrise.

We fall into bed, I set my alarm for 2:50am, and before my eyes close I feel the weight of my heart inside my chest – it is so full, so satiated, pumping blood through my body, feeding my tired muscles, fuelling my wildest dreams.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Dixie Diaries: Day 2

April 17, 2012:  Las Vegas to Flagstaff

Our morning is spent viewing Vegas from the top of the Stratosphere Tower (a perk of staying at the Stratosphere), followed by breakfast at Roxy’s Diner where they serve strawberries with pepper (surprisingly tasty).

We then hop into Dixie and happily cruise out of Sin City, towards the town of Flagstaff.  I drive.  It is my first drive in over a year and I am surprised at how good it feels to have my foot on the pedal and my hands on the wheel.

Music is played.  L’s “Arizona Road Trip Mix #1,” which has been waiting for years for this moment, is finally set free and Life is a Highway sets the tone for the rest of the day, the week, the entire rock and rollin’ trip.  During song #3 – Rod Stewart’s Forever Young – the combination of music, open road, friendship, and freedom hits me in the chest with a synergistic force that causes a burst of happiness to shoot up through my body and out my eyes, leaving tears in its wake. 

May the good Lord be with you

Down every road you roam

And may sunshine and happiness

Surround you when you're far from home

And may you grow to be proud

Dignified and true

And do unto others

As you'd have done to you

Be courageous and be brave

And in my heart you'll always stay

Forever young, forever young

Hoover Dam is our first pit stop – that man-made concrete creation in Boulder City, Nevada (at the Arizona border).  We park the car, admire the view, and though we know very little about the dam’s history, we are nonetheless able to appreciate its size and its beautiful setting. 

After stretching our legs and looking up at the sky, letting our skin tingle under the hot rays of the afternoon sun, we continue on our way and soon roll onto Route 66, the “Mother Road,” immortalized by Steinbeck as the “Road to Opportunity.”  There is something about this road, something un-nameable yet tangible and I feel it as soon as our wheels hit that well-worn asphalt which is bordered on each side by ever-changing scenes of red rock, desert shrubs, sun-bleached tufts of grass, and small bunny-like creatures scurrying away from our approaching vehicle.  It feels like we are alone on this road (a lot of the time, we are), alone in the world, two adventurous souls leaving familiarity behind, searching for nothing and everything, knowing the road will lead where we need to go, literally and figuratively.

We stop at an all-in-one gas station/souvenir shop/diner – one of those old, rusted-up places full of relics (an autographed Beatles photo hangs on the wall) and untold stories of days gone by.  My imagination thrusts me into this other world – I see tough-talking, beer-guzzling cowboys sitting in a booth, long-legged pretty girls in short skirts batting their eyelashes and whizzing around on roller-skates, Elvis crooning from the battered jukebox in the corner.  I feel the history of this place, of this road, and I drink it up, drop by precious drop, as though I am sipping on the untainted heartblood of America.

We drive into Williams as the setting sun drapes the town in dreamy hues.  We spend some time wandering up and down streets, breathing in the smell of BBQ, shopping for the best beef jerky, admiring the town’s oldest diner (complete with Cadillac and soda fountain), lost in the wild of the Wild West. 

After some time, we get back in our car and drive to Flagstaff, our home for the next two nights.  We settle into our quad at the Grand Canyon Hostel – a place filled with folks of all ages who have dirt on their hiking boots, sun on their cheeks, and wind in their hair.  We are a world away from the glitz and superficiality of Las Vegas and am glad to notice that here, amongst the earthy Canyon-seekers, I feel very much at home. 

After a late dinner and raspberry beer (for me) and red wine (for L) at a local brewery, we climb into our top bunks and whisper  “goodnights” that carry within them all the wonder of the day.  We have only been traveling for two days, but already we feel lighter, untethered from the routines of school and work and groceries and laundry, brimming with inspiration and bursting with joy.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Dixie Diaries: Day 1

April 16, 2012:  Toronto to Las Vegas

We are two happy girls with stuffed backpacks, giddy voices, and wide eyes (very much awake for 8 in the morning) sitting on a Greyhound bus amidst a slew of colourful characters:  a bus driver with a tired grin and a kind word for all, a woman from Queen’s, New York who is enraptured by The Hunger Games, three young Mennonites in their customary garb who share a big thermos of water and a thick salami sandwich, a smiling Iranian man with a bounce in his step who is humiliated at the border because of an unidentified bottle of pills in his suitcase (I shoot disapproving looks at the officer who thinks it appropriate to demean this man by shouting at him to “shut up.”) 

At the airport, we sit, we read, we rest, we sleep.  When there is nothing to do but wait and nowhere to be but here – as is often the case in airports – it is easy to shift into stillness. I feel the shift happen as I turn the pages of Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, a book given to me by L, to be read on this journey of ours which has only just begun, but yes oh yes it has begun and there is joy in the simple fact of knowing this.

We talk and laugh and marvel at the fact that “we are actually doing it!” No longer are we sitting in our apartments, jotting down ideas, checking prices, searching for accommodation, flipping through guidebooks, emailing back and forth, and dreaming the Arizona dream.  We are here, on the road, on our way.

I observe the people – all sorts of people going somewhere for some reason for some time.  I wish them happy travels and safe returns. 

Our first flight, from Buffalo to Cleveland, is a bumpy, scary ride, as if the sky is full of potholes and our small plane is hitting every one.  I clasp my hands together and pray (to God, to Grandpa, to Aunt Shirley, to Mémère, to Pépère, to anyone who will listen really) and ask that this plane please not crash, not now, not here.  If it is to crash, if that is indeed our fate, then please let it crash on the way back, after we have tasted the desert sun we have so lovingly and longingly prepared for.  We are white-knuckled and barely breathing when we hear the young boy behind us squeal in delight, “Whoaaaa…this plane is awesome!” he says, followed by, “It’s like a roller-coaster!”  We laugh and loosen our grips a little.  If this plane is to crash, let it be an awesome roller-coaster crash that makes our bellies tickle all the way down and may the last sound we hear be a child’s exhilarated cries.

We do not crash, we do not die, our remains are not to be fished out of Lake Erie, and our next plane (a smoother ride, infinitely less “awesome” for our young friend) carries us from Cleveland to Las Vegas, where there are slot machines even in the airport.  We wait a long time to pick up our car, a grey Nissan Sentra to which we will quickly become oddly attached and which we will, on Day 3, affectionately nickname "Dixie." With L behind the wheel, we make our way down “the strip” towards our room at the Stratosphere Hotel.

The ride down the strip both fascinates and disgusts me.  The bright neon signs and the showy hotels, so ornately designed and constructed, make my heart beat a little faster and I can feel the buzz of the place immediately infiltrate my mind and stimulate my senses in a way that is not altogether unpleasant.  But underneath this attraction is a deeper wisdom I am thankful for.  I feel as though I can see Vegas for what it is – a place where the American Dream is pushed to the extreme and where overindulgence is not only encouraged, but celebrated. Because of this ability to see the artifice, I can appreciate the artifice without being devoured by it.

We arrive at our hotel just after 1am local time (3am Toronto time). The friendly lady at the check-in counter upgrades our room to a suite and we make our way to the elevator in an exhausted, elated state. 

We jump into our beds, easing into the un-creased sheets and cloud-puff pillows, and in this razzle-dazzle land of make-believe and trickery, we drift off to sleep.